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Superpower Limitations

The United States' status as the world's only remaining superpower is a key factor as the U.N. prepares to vote on Iraq. In his commentary, CBS News State Department Reporter Charles Wolfson points out that even that fact of global life has its limits.

Okay, so the French are out of synch with America's policy on Iraq.

What else is new.

But so are the Germans, the Russians and the Chinese. Turkey, another NATO ally and one which shares a border with Iraq, has refused billions in badly needed U.S. aid in exchange for letting American troops use Turkish territory as a launching pad against Iraq.

Public opinion in most of Europe is strongly against what is widely seen there as President Bush's rush towards war. Nor has the American public been totally persuaded the time has come to remove Saddam Hussein from power by force.

Even the British are going wobbly. Prime Minister Tony Blair remains staunchly behind Mr. Bush but his Labor party colleagues are giving less than full support and the British public is not on board by any means.

Yes, the U.S. does have allies. Australians will fight alongside American and British troops. Spain and Bulgaria will also cast their Security Council votes with Washington.

But what all the diplomatic effort over Iraq comes down to is whether Washington can count on the votes of Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Cameroon, Angola and Guinea. It needs five of those six to pass the pending resolution in the Security Council. That is the easy part.

Then, those with veto power - France, Russia and China - have to be persuaded not to use it. While White House and State department officials hope the French will not exercise their veto right, no one is betting the ranch on it.

What's going on here? How did the world's only remaining superpower find itself dependent on Chile, Guinea and Cameroon for diplomatic success?

First, there is a real disagreement on policy. The Bush administration sees Saddam Hussein as a clear and present danger. Having suffered one huge attack on 9/11, President Bush is unwilling to take any further chances that Saddam will allow his weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists for use in a second attack. Others, led by France, do not see the threat in immediate terms. (Of course, it was New York and Washington that were attacked on 9/11, not Paris or Moscow).

But beyond the disagreement over the immediacy of the threat, the current Iraq debate has become a test of the limits on the world's sole superpower. While the America is without economic or military equals on the world's geopolitical stage, it is not without opposition for influence. Part of the current debate has its roots in the desire of former powerhouses such as Russia and France to place some limits on Washington's ability to act.

Also at issue is personality. Many Europeans simply do not like the personal style and tone of Mr. Bush. Rightly or wrongly there is a perception abroad that the President is acting too quickly, with too much moral certitude and with too much brashness. Such comments as "You are either with us or against us" do not land on European ears in a way that brings support. Europeans see that as part of Mr. Bush's cowboy Western heritage and reinforces their view of his policies as unsophisticated.

What can they do about this? Not enough to stop Mr. Bush from acting, but they are doing whatever they can to show Washington there are some constraints on power.

The dilemma in Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Beijing is how far to push their opposition to Washington. Powell has cautioned senators against seeking revenge against nations which do not support our policies, but he has also expressed the hope that when the time comes for the Iraqi people to hand out lucrative business contracts, they will remember who came to liberate them from Saddam - and who did not.

Before that day comes, however, representatives of fifteen countries will have to stand and be counted in support or opposition to the Bush-led policy on Iraq. You can bet your last nickel they are keeping a tally sheet at the White House.

By Charles M. Wolfson